Is it Possible to Unite a Nation Divided?

As I get older, I am realizing that I will save myself a lot of time – and ultimately save a bit of my sanity – if I accept that fact that human beings are irrational by nature. I’ve spent a lot of mental energy trying to figure out why people do the things they do. Why do they sometimes act against their own interests? Why do they appear to cling to choices that have and continue to be “bad” for them and a lot of other people, too?

I’ve been asking myself these questions possibly from a place of judgment. I like to think of myself as rational and can tend to judge others as irrational if they do things I cannot always understand. I elevate myself in my own mind when I do this. That is my emotional payoff. I can’t understand other people, and then deem them not worth understanding.

I’m speaking abstractly here, as this is something I think about and have done most of my life. But I’m really writing this in response to something more specific: the election and the political realities that we will face with this new incoming President. Full disclosure: I am an Obamanista in my heart of hearts. I volunteered for his campaigns during his elections, and most recently, since July, I volunteered at my local Democratic Coordinated Committee Campaign office to help Virginia elect Hillary Clinton as President. Virginia came through, but other important states did not. There’s a lot to blame for this result, and I’ve spent a lot of time placing blame almost everywhere in private conversations with friends and family because I cannot understand how this all happened.  Electing Donald Trump as the President of the United States seems completely irrational to me, as he disqualified himself more times than I can count. I’ve thought of reasons why this election happened the way it did: sexism, racism, nativisim, and an uninformed electorate. I’ve read why this happened: economic anxieties; the negative effects of globalization; a continual, institutionalized suspicion of the Clintons because of their political baggage/failings; and a populace fearful of the social, global, technological changes that we’ve experienced these last few years. All of these reasons are legitimate.

Here’s the difficult question I ask myself now: does it matter why people voted for Donald Trump, or Jill Stein, or Gary Johnson or Harambe or whoever wasn’t Hillary Clinton, if they even showed up to vote at all? What do we learn from this? There may be a lot to learn from the answers to these questions. However, as a results-oriented person, I also wonder what net benefits come from blaming and shaming others for their choices? It can be a great way of shining a light on questionable if not downright immoral behavior, and that can be instructive. But it is the best way to reach people?

I have no answers to these questions yet, but I also want to figure out if there are other ways of reaching people, too. For example, what if we just accept that people are irrational? That we all have biases and emotional reasons for doing things that other people can’t understand and cannot be explained rationally?  This country itself is irrational in the ways it defines itself.  The United States is as aspirational in its elevation of freedom and equality as it is forever characterized by its original sins of slavery, genocide, and racial and economic equality. We, as Americans, are irrational as well.  Our desires for freedom and autonomy were and still are determined by oppressing others.  We have internalized that.  We see that as a sign of power, and as a result, at times, we celebrate and elevate those who oppress others because we have romanticized that as an ultimate sign of self-determination and heroism.  I don’t want and never want to whitewash what has happened or what may come. However, I think we have to also realized that we are just as likely to listen to our better angels as we are to  double down on our worst, most bigoted impulses, even if that hurts us in the long run.  That’s a condition, that on some level, we all share. We are intertwined by these irrationalities.

In an attempt to tie this back into the original premise of this blog: what happens if we see those we disagree with not as caricatures or irrational creatures but as actual complex people with their own inner lives, biases and desires, their own complicated interiority?  How do you reach them? How do we encourage empathy with others instead of indulge in dehumanization, and what could be the results of that?  Can empathy become message powerful enough so that people can’t help but hear it? These questions weigh heavily in my mind, and I hope to come back to them as this year progresses.

The Poetics and Politics of Race and Space: A Few Thoughts on Ferguson and Fictional Representations of Missouri

A few weeks ago, I concluded my last post with some questions I had about Ferguson, Michael Brown and the dialogue surrounding his death, law enforcement in that region, and fear as the possible root cause of this kind of violence.  Last week I had the opportunity to write a blog post, “Framing Ferguson: A Time for Mourning and Action,” for George Washington University’s American Literature and Culture Organization (ALCO) in response to a panel the university held that brought students and faculty together to discuss a variety of topics ranging from racial and economical tensions and inequalities to policing and public policy.

The panel also proceeded my course’s reading of Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894). Last week, the students in my Introduction to American Literature course started reading Mark Twain’s novel set in the fictional, slave-holding small town of Dawson’s Landing which Twain locates “on the Missouri side of the Mississippi, half a day’s journey, per steamboat, to St. Louis” (Twain 3). Twain places Missouri as a site of “historical contradictions” (Gillman 448). These contradictions involve the actions and identities of the characters in the town as well as the laws by which they live and customs they value. As Susan Gillman explains in “‘Sure Identifiers’: Race, Science, and the Law in Pudd’nhead Wilson,” “the novel detects a central ambiguity suppressed in law, if not custom, by slave society” leaving us to ask ourselves, “How do we know…who is to be held accountable under the law and who is not? …How do we know what we know is true?” (449).

These questions feel eerily relevant today. I’m left with questions about what fictions exist about Missouri, its pivotal role as a border state in shaping United States’ history of slavery and race, and how those fictions compare, if at all, with the realities that we might know about that state today. I look forward to discussing and exploring some of these comparisons and aforementioned contradictions in a more in depth way in the future.

Works Cited:

Twain, Mark. Pudd’nhead Wilson and Those Extraordinary Twins: Authoritative Texts, Textual Introd. and Tables of Variants, Criticism. Ed. Sidney E. Berger. 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 2005. Print.

Gillman, Susan. “‘Sure Identifiers’: Race, Science, and the Law in Pudd’nhead Wilson.” Pudd’nhead Wilson and Those Extraordinary Twins: Authoritative Texts, Textual Introd. and Tables of Variants, Criticism. Ed. Sidney E. Berger. 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 2005. Print.

Updates on New Postings for September

It’s that time of year again.  The semester starts next week for me, and during the fall, I’ll be trying to balance teaching with dissertation writing and research.  In the spirit of keeping myself on task when it comes to this blog, there are at least two posts I’m planning to make during the month of September. One will be in response to the film Belle (2013), which I mentioned in my last post, and the second will be a brief discussion on Juan Francisco Manzano (1797-1854) and his The Autobiography of a Slave/Autobiografia de un Escalvo.

Finally, for the past couple of weeks, my thoughts have also been on Michael Brown, his family, the Ferguson community, and the handling and media coverage of protests about Ferguson.  It’s a topic I have a lot of opinions about both in terms of my research on race, interiority and personhood as well as how it continues to shape my personal experience and understanding of race and citizenship as a black woman in the United States.  While I do believe in waiting to hear all of the facts surrounding the killing of Michael Brown, his death feels too closely linked to a tradition in the U.S. where lethal force is used against black citizens who may seem threatening, even if they are unarmed.

What was the threat in this situation and what was this officer Darren Wilson fearful of?  When and why does it appear that fear itself is justification enough killing someone else?  Fear is at the root of these very broad questions, but I start with fear because it is that emotion that allows us to determine how and to what lengths we protect ourselves and who we believe is worth protecting, especially within our national borders or local communities.

 

 

Belle, The Woman of Colour, and Ourika: On Authorship, Race, and Writing Interiority

I recently completed Paula Byrne’s Belle: The Slave Daughter and the Lord Chief Justice (2014), a companion piece to the 2013 film Belle that’s part biography of Dido Elizabeth Belle and Lord Mansfield and part historical analysis of slavery in the British Empire. Dido Elizabeth Belle was the mixed race daughter of Admiral Sir John Lindsay, nephew of William Murray, the Earl of Mansfield who served as Lord Chief Justice during the late eighteenth century. Lindsay had a child with a female slave named Maria Belle, and although Dido Belle was born into slavery, she was raised by William Murray (Lord Mansfield) and his wife.

Both the film and the book focus on how Dido’s relationship with Murray might have very well influenced his stance on slavery, particularly in his ruling on the Somerset case of 1772. Charles Stewart brought his slave James Somerset to England in 1769. Somerset later escaped in 1771 but was captured and imprisoned on a ship bound for the West Indies.  Although he was supposed to be sold to a plantation in Jamaica, Somerset and his godparents applied for a writ of Habeas Corpus to determine if his imprisonment was legal since, as Somerset’s council argued, English common law did not support slavery.

While Mansfield’s ruling, which freed Somerset, was seen as a sign that slavery had no place on English soil, Dana Rabin asserts in “Slavery, Villeinage and the Making of Whiteness” that, “Mansfield resolved only the question of Habeas Corpus writ. He declared illegal the coerced transportation of slaves from England and remained silent on the general question of slavery in England and throughout the empire” (6). Lord Mansfield’s stance on slavery remained ambiguous. As Paula Byrne notes, “Mansfield was ruminating anxiously on the consequences of his ruling if it went wholly in favour of Somerset, and as a result every slave in Britain was freed, he judged the loss to the proprietors as being more than 70,000 pounds” (142-3).

Dido’s presence in Lord Mansfield’s life ameliorates questions of his ambivalence in Byrne’s interpretation of their relationship, and his affection for her humanizes his struggles while also positioning Dido as an important historical figure in England and as part of African Diaspora. As L.A. Times journalist Mark Olsen writes, “Her presence serves as a catalyst for her great-uncle, the lord chief justice, to make a series of legal decisions that begin to erode the economic basis of the slave trade.”

While reading about Dido Belle, I found a few articles discussing not only the historical background of the story but also current controversies about who wrote the screenplay for the movie Belle and who, consequently, gets credit for bringing her story to a wider audience. In LA Times’ “Writing Dispute for Film ‘Belle’ Bubbles Up Again,” Mark Olsen summarizes the ongoing public struggle between director Amma Asante and screenwriter Misan Sangay, which was settled in court but still goes on in the press.  Both women claim to be inspired by the portrait shown below, and they both assert they breathed life and interiority into Dido’s image.

Dido Elizabeth Belle” by Attributed to Johann Zoffanyhttps://poeticsofinteriority.files.wordpress.com/2014/08/d1c47-didoandeliza3.jpg. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Sagay saw this 1779 painting, which features Dido Elizabeth Belle (right) with her cousin Elizabeth Mary Murray, hanging in Scone Palace in Scotland. Asante claims she received a postcard of the painting, and she used that as her inspiration. The questions around Dido’s life story, the attempts to write her voice for a larger audience, and the controversies about Belle’s screenplay remind me of similar conversations about authorship in texts like The Woman of Colour (1808) and Ourika (1823), which may both be compared comparisons to Belle.

Ourika, written by Claire de Duras, is based on the life of a young Senegalese girl purchased by the Chevalier de Buffons in the late 1780s and given as a gift to the Duchess of Orleans.  The Duchess raised Ourika until she died at the age of sixteen. Ourika was then adopted, in a more figurative sense, by Duras for her novella about the tragic life of a young black woman out of place in Parisian aristocracy during the French Revolution. It’s interesting to note that Ourika was the “first serious attempt by a white novelist to enter a black mind,” according to John Fowles, translator for the French novella (Fowles xxxii).

Making a contrast with Ourika, Lyndon Dominic, editor of The Woman of Colour, believes that this anonymously written epistolary novel “provides a missing link in the narrative history of black heroines from Imonida to Ourika” (18).  Unlike Duras’ novella, “it seems plausible to propose that a woman of colour wrote The Woman of Colour” and that a book like this, possibly based on the real life experiences of Afro-British woman in the long nineteenth century, allows us to see this work as “source material that represents her interiority” (17).

Several questions arise from these topics.  Who gets to take credit for creating a voice out of a perceived voicelessness of Dido Belle’s existence?  How is the interiority of a character linked to how we perceive our own histories and our potential futures? Who gets to claim the voices of these previously unrepresented women who may re-conceptualize how we view black presences in the West?  The movie Belle is still in some theaters and will be available online soon, and I hope viewing this film will in some way elucidate some of the answers to these questions.

Works Cited

Belle. Dir. Amma Asante. Perf. Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Matthew Goode, Emily Watson. Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2013. Film.

Byrne, Paula. Belle: The Slave Daughter and the Lord Chief Justice. New York: Harper Perennial, 2014. Print.

Dominique, Lyndon Janson. The Woman of Colour: A Tale. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview, 2008. Print.

Duras, Claire De Durfort, and John Fowles. Ourika: An English Translation. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1994. Print.

Olsen, Mark. “Writing Dispute for Film ‘Belle’ Bubbles up Again.” LA Times. N.p., 29 July 2014. Web. 29 July 2014.

Rabin, D. “‘In a Country of Liberty?’: Slavery, Villeinage and the Making of Whiteness in the Somerset Case (1772).” History Workshop Journal 72.1 (2011): 5-29. Web.